The Internet era has facilitated the development of the sharing economy, also known as the peer-to-peer economy.
This enables individuals to do business with one another in a decentralised fashion, using special platforms, and without intermediaries. Many companies operating in this fashion have the capacity to disrupt existing business sectors.
This model began with eBay back in 1995, and now extends to a wide range of initiatives, ranging from the small to the corporate giants.
Rise of new monopolies
Growing concerns have been raised about the role of the big players such as Uber (taxis) and Airbnb (short-term accommodation). In contrast to the impression created by the ‘sharing’ name, these capitalist entities are involved in extracting profits, tax avoidance, and lobbying to overturn local regulations.
They frequently behave in a similar way to monopolies, with one player often dominating its sector while using the advantage of its incumbency to slant the playing field against new less well-funded entrants.
Meanwhile, job numbers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ sector of the sharing economy have been multiplying.
In the US, the gig economy now represents 34 per cent of the workforce. In addition to Uber, other examples include Deliveroo (a food delivery service), and TaskRabbit (for small handyman jobs).
Regarded as contractors rather than employees, those involved in this sector have no minimum wage, no paid holidays, and no benefits. However, gig work appeals to some people who dislike employers and who appreciate the flexibility, especially if they already have another income source.
An alternative to these large corporates is ‘platform cooperativism’. A term coined by US academic and author Trebor Scholz, this is where computer technology meets the cooperative movement. Unlike corporate giants, cooperatives are collectively owned and governed, facilitating democracy, and achieving a greater level of fairness for everyone involved.
Among platform coops and other businesses with similar socially-oriented goals are:
- Loomio (collaborative decision-making software.)
- Stocksy (based in Canada, offering stock photography and video footage, with higher payments to photographers.)
- Green Taxi Cooperative (Denver, Colorado.)
- Resonate (music-streaming service that pays artists 2.5 times more than their competitors.)
- Fairmondo (a marketplace for ethical goods and services operating in the UK and Germany.)
- Loconomics (located in the US, this is a platform for service professionals such as massage therapists, hairdressers and tax agents to connect with new clients.)
- Modo (a Vancouver, Canada car-sharing coop)
- Fairbnb (not yet launched, this plans to be an alternative to Airbnb that is community-centred, owned by those who use it, with decisions made for the benefit of neighbourhoods.)
With online platforms representing a growing share of the world’s economy activity, platform cooperatives are viewed as a means of tackling a wide range of problems. Revenue is reinvested locally rather than being sent off to benefit a distant corporation, and surplus profits are returned to members.
Platform cooperatives help to address issues such as extreme and increasing wealth inequalities, a shrinking middle class, and the rise of automation. At a time when the personal data market is worth US $57 billion (AUD $73 billion) globally, platform coops will be respecting privacy rather than mining and selling data. Other areas that platform coops are likely to connect up with are the maker movement, 3D printing, and the re-use of resources in the circular economy.
A bHive for Bendigo
Bendigo is a large inland city in regional Victoria, with a population of about 110,000 people. In 2016, a core group of organisers proposed to make it Australia’s very first platform cooperative hub. One key player is ecological consultant Ian McBurney, who suspended working in his business in order to make the Bendigo vision a reality.
Known as bHive, the plans are to function as platform under which a collective of micro-businesses can operate. Areas are likely to include car sharing, bike sharing, stuff sharing, peer-to-peer energy, skill sharing, timebanking, food sharing and peer-to-peer lending. By sharing resources within a group, unnecessary consumption can be avoided, which will have a tangible environmental benefit. One early project already underway is an organisational fleet car sharing study.
Trading ‘village’ App
As with many of the larger sharing economy players, bHive would make use of a reputation score as a means of motivating high standards, honesty, and good communication among participants. McBurney’s vision is of a local neighbourhood trading zone 200 to 300 metres around your home, one that is viewed as a de-facto village.
The platform will run on a mobile app, and developers have already sketched out how it might look. bHive is evolving in stages, and in August 2017 it was set up as a cooperative.
Based on the current timeline, the plan is to launch in 2019. Before then, the organising group hopes to have raised a million dollars over a three-year period, after which it expects that the platform will be financially sustainable.
Bendigo has a strong cooperative history involving brewing coops, butter coops, cheese coops, and fruit-growing coops. The Bendigo Bank, which has branches around the country, originally evolved from a building society. bHive is hoping to build on this past and bring it into the high-tech 21st Century.
bHive Bendigo – www.bhive.coop
bHive Bendigo on Facebook; www.facebook.com/bhive.coop
Interview with Trebor Scholz https://youtu.be/v2OmPKdO_qk
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, NSW.